26 June 2019

Qihoo 360, China’s biggest cybersecurity firm, wants to become China’s cyberwarfare defender

Qihoo 360 is the biggest cybersecurity company in China, but few people in the rest of the world know the name. These days, however, it’s taking an increasingly important role in China’s cybersecurity efforts.

On June 19, 2019, as the tech war between China and US raged on, Qihoo 360 CEO Zhou Hongyi announced that the company has been developing a cyberspace radar system to fight sophisticated cyberwarfare attacks. During a talk at the China Internet Security Conference (ISC), Zhou said that Qihoo 360 had discovered 40 intrusions from hackers in other countries and regions.

The company has been vying to become a key member of the country’s national cybersecurity strategy since it abandoned the US stock market to perform a backdoor listing in China in 2018.

“(Cybersecurity) is a very special industry, no matter if it’s Chinese or Russian or American, as long as a cybersecurity firm grows big enough, it needs to be aligned with national interests,” Zhou said at the time.

However, Qihoo 360’s beginnings were not as lofty as its current ambitions. It was founded in 2005 when Zhou Hongyi quit his job as president of Yahoo China and joined his colleague Qi Xiangdong, former vice president of Yahoo China, to create a search engine.

They soon found that antivirus and antimalware software was what China really needed. But even then, the company annoyed users by bundling its software with a heavy load of bloatware, spamming people with pop-up ads and blocking other anti-virus software.

The company has also been involved in lawsuits with Tencent and Baidu, among other companies -- although lawsuits among Chinese tech companies aren’t exactly rare.

But probably the most controversial event in the company’s history came in 2012. A programmer accused Qihoo 360 of using a backdoor in its software to steal user information and uninstall competitors' software from users' computers. The company dismissed this saying that the story was made up by a competitor.

Around the same time, Qihoo 360’s apps were suddenly dropped from Apple’s App Store. The company said this had nothing to do with the backdoor accusation.

Qihoo 360 has been a huge success, but its path has been mired controversy. (Picture: AFP Photo)

Another controversy followed in 2015 when three antivirus testing firms accused Qihoo 360 of trying to manipulate the testing process by using Bitdefender’s software for testing while providing consumers with something different. Qihoo 360 denied the claims and cut ties with the testing firms.

But that didn't stop Qihoo 360’s rise. It only took six years for it to launch an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, reaching a market value more than US$2 billion.

In 2012, the same year it listed, Qihoo 360 even made a foray into hardware by trying to launch its own smartphone called Battleship with Chinese appliance maker Haier.

These days, Qihoo 360 gets most of its income from advertisements and other value-added services, including games. It’s PC and mobile antivirus software is still free.

Qihoo 360 still keeps its antivirus solutions free, but it has branched out into many other areas. (Picture: Handout)

The company is trying out plenty of other products, too. These include the financial startup Finance 360, search engine 360 SO, an app store, consumer data and IoT platforms, an AI research institute and smart driving.

It even owns its own hardware line now, which includes surveillance cameras -- and this sparked another controversy, this time over privacy. The company’s cameras live-streamed footage from schools on Qihoo 360’s live streaming platform Shuidi Zhibo.

Qihoo 360 has also been making headlines for good deeds, like discovering vulnerabilities in other companies’ systems. In 2017, the FBI in Alaska thanked the company on Twitter for helping it crack three local cybercrime cases involving DDoS attacks. Tesla also expressed gratitude when a Qihoo 360 team hacked the Model S and found a flaw in the car’s key security system.

The move back to China signified a new era for the company.

In 2017, it opened a cyber security center that aims to boost the country’s cyber defenses through military and civil cooperation. Qihoo 360 has also acquired dozens of security firms through mergers and acquisitions, according to China Securities. One of its better known purchases is Opera Software, known for its web browser, which Qihoo acquired with Beijing-based Kunlun, owner of Grindr.

Zhou, worth more than US$4 billion, defended embattled Huawei after it was put on a list barring it from dealing with US companies in May 2019. Zhou said that Huawei’s ban was motivated by America’s fear that it would not easily be able to spy on others if the Chinese company dominated the 5G ultra-fast telecommunications network infrastructure.

“It’s only now that US-China relations have reached this stage that people are beginning to realize Qihoo’s foresight,” he said.

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